Iceland is a dream destination for everyone, and it’s easier than ever to get there now that Icelandair offers affordable flights to and from cities all over the world. It is one of the most beautiful and remote islands in the world with an incredibly dramatic landscape to explore. Massive waterfalls, black sand beaches, hot springs, glaciers, and national parks are just a few of the highlights that you’ll see during your vacation in Iceland.
But given the fact that Iceland is so far north, you’ll experience extremely cold temperatures, aggressive winds, and a lot of rain. You’ll need to plan and pack accordingly. Read on to find out how to prepare for your trip to this incredible desolate island.
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How to Prepare for a Trip to Iceland
Check the Average Weather Conditions
Take a look at where Iceland is on a map, its latitude is similar to that of southern Greenland, Sweden, and Alaska. Go much further north and conditions are uninhabitable. So winters in Iceland have average temperatures hovering around freezing, and only about 4 hours of daylight around the winter solstice. But winter is also the best time to visit Iceland if you want to see the Northern Lights.
The warmest time of the year in Iceland is summertime, around July and August. However average temperatures are around 55°F so it’s never really swimsuit weather in Iceland. You’ll only have a few hours of darkness during the summer months so you might have difficulty sleeping.
Summer is also the most popular time of year to visit so you’ll find that the popular tourist destinations are often quite crowded unless you arrive early or late in the day.
And regardless of the time of year that you visit, you’ll likely encounter some rain. So you’ll want to pack clothing that will keep you warm and dry, as well as some waterproof shoes.
Check the Road Conditions
The Ring Road, also known as Þjóðvegur 1 and Route 1, is an 828-mile road that runs around the circumference of the island. So if wanted to, you could drive around the entire island in just 16 hours. But because there are so many amazing sites along the way, most people prefer to take 10 to 14 days. On our trip, we spent 2 weeks driving Iceland’s Ring Road.
The Ring Road is a paved highway that is generally just one lane going each direction with no middle barrier. You’ll often find that the side of the highway has a slight hill that leads down to grassy farmland, meaning that you don’t have a lot of room to move over when passing large vehicles. The standard speed limit is 90 kilometers/hour outside of cities and 50 kilometers/hour in the towns. And you’ll need to stay away from the “F” roads unless you have 4-wheel drive.
However, the Ring Road can be quite dangerous to drive during the winter months due to snow, ice, and extreme winds. Many roads in Iceland are actually closed during the winter. There are tour operators that have well-equipped vehicles if you’d like to visit in the winter but would prefer not to drive. You can get up-to-date information on road closures by visiting http://www.road.is/.
Regardless of the time of year that you visit, you’ll want to check weather and road conditions regularly. Strong winds can cause sand storms that can actually damage your vehicle. And many tourists forget to have a tight grip on their car door when opening it during a windstorm and have it nearly blown right off! If wind speeds exceed 20 meters per second you should stop driving, park into the wind, and wait it out.
Determine Your Trip Duration
Are you visiting Iceland as a long layover? Or as your primary vacation destination? Two weeks in Iceland should give you plenty of time to explore all of the top sites around the island. And 3-4 days should give you enough time to enjoy the highlights of southern Iceland. And if you only have one day, it’s possible to do the Golden Circle route which includes 3 popular tourists sites.
Our recommendation would be to take your time in Iceland as there are so many amazing things to see and do. At least one week, preferably two, would be the ideal duration.
Set a Budget
Iceland is known as being an incredibly expensive country and it would be a difficult place to travel on a tight budget. There are some truly unique places to stay in Iceland but hotels and guest houses are not cheap – even for basic accommodations.
If you want to save money on your trip you’ll be better off camping, but then you’ll be at the mercy of Iceland’s unpredictable weather. We think that the best compromise is to rent a fully-contained motorhome so you’ll be able to sleep inside, but won’t have to pay as much for accommodations (though you’ll still have to pay for camping in Iceland).
You should also consider whether you will be dining out regularly or cooking your meals? And you will probably want to splurge on a few guided tours or entrance to the famous Blue Lagoon? All of these things will affect what you’ll spend on a daily basis.
To help you create a realistic budget for your trip, we put together a comprehensive post: How Much Does it Really Cost to Travel in Iceland.
Plan Your Itinerary
Keflavík Airport (KEF) is located about 30 miles southeast of Reykjavik and is the main hub for international flights. Getting from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik can be an expensive affair with a taxi setting you back $100-120. A more affordable option is the Flybus but even that will cost you ~$25 per person. So your best bet is to pick up your own rental vehicle as soon as you arrive in the country.
Most of the car and motorhome rental companies are within a few miles of the airport. So it’s relatively easy to pick up your car or motorhome right when you land and set off on your Iceland adventure! Just beware that taxis are outrageously expensive so you’ll probably spend at least $30 USD just to go a few miles to your motorhome rental agency.
If you have time and want to drive the entire Ring Road, you’ll need to decide to tackle it from a clockwise, or counterclockwise direction. The entire road is just 828 miles long. Check the weather conditions around the island to try to avoid any rain or extreme storms. We developed a comprehensive 14-day counterclockwise itinerary to help you in planning your trip!
And if you have less than a week to spend on the island, check out our Complete Guide to the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle route is just 140 miles so it is possible to see the three popular sites in under a day. But the southern end of the island has so many amazing waterfalls, hot springs, and glacier lagoons so we would definitely recommend getting off of the Golden Circle route if you have time. Check out our post about the must-see Highlights of Southern Iceland!
Find a Reputable Rental Car Company
While it’s possible to see Iceland as part of a tour group, if you want the freedom to explore the country at your own pace you should definitely rent a car. And if you’d rather not plan your itinerary and book all of your accommodations well in advance, you’re best off renting a motorhome.
It’s easy to pull into one of the many campgrounds around the island when you get tired at the end of the night as they always have room. It will also help you keep your costs down if you cook your meals rather than dine out.
There are lots of motorhome companies to choose from in Iceland. And the best way to compare vehicles side-by-side based on price, amenities, and size, is on the Motorhome Republic website. They are like the Booking.com for motorhomes and operate in 38 countries around the world. Plus they’ve got top-notch customer service in case you encounter any challenges during your road trip.
As mentioned previously, the weather in Iceland is often very cold, rainy, and often unpredictable. So you’ll want to be prepared with some warm clothes that you can layer as well as waterproof gear. Plus you’ll be swimming in hot springs regularly where you’ll have to pay extra for a towel, so don’t forget your swimsuit and a quick-dry towel. And an eye mask will really help you get to sleep in the summer when it never really gets dark at night.
A few Iceland packing essentials include:
- Puffy jacket
- Rain jacket
- Waterproof hiking shoes/boots
- Wool socks
- Wool hat and scarf
- Flip flops
- Quick-dry towel
- Reusable water bottle
- Eye mask
Read our complete list of what to pack for Iceland!
Purchase a Camping Card
If you take our advice and rent a motorhome in Iceland, you can save a bit of cash with the Icelandic Camping Card. It is valid for 2 adults and up to 4 children and gives you access to 40 campsites around the island for up to 28 nights. The price to stay in a campground varies from around 1,400 – 2,000 ISK per person ($11-16 USD) and the total price of the Icelandic Camping Card is $177.80 USD. So if you plan on camping for more than a week, it’s a good investment. Buy it several weeks in advance and get it mailed to your house!
Pack Some Snacks and Stop at the Duty-Free
Dining out in Iceland is really pricey but there are plenty of discount grocery stores all over the island. But if you think you’ll want a snack before you pick up your vehicle and hit the road, best to throw a few granola bars in your bag before leaving home.
And do as the locals do – stop at the duty-free on your way out of the airport to buy all of the alcohol you plan on consuming during your trip!
We hope you feel more prepared for your trip to Iceland!
Want more inspiration to plan your trip? Check out our favorite travel guides!